Self-Balancing Gameplay

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Mar 1, 2006

Filed under: Game Design 53 comments

A while back I wrote about the difference in skill between the experts and the newbies when it comes to first-person shooters. Although I was talking about FPS games, this is a conundrum nearly every game designer needs to consider, and it leads back to the original Rampant Coyote post that started all of this: Should you make the game accessible (and thus far, far too easy for the “hardcore” player) or should you aim your game at veteran players (and thus make the game almost impossible for the newcomers)? Keep in mind that the more casual players are a larger audience, but it’s the hardcore that write the reviews.

You can alleviate this problem by making lots of difficulty levels. This will broaden the range of gamers that can play your game, but it’s a less-than-perfect solution. Most people, even newbies, don’t want to select “easy”. That’s like admitting you suck. Some people just don’t know that they suck. Some people know they suck but don’t want to admit it. So, lots of people will select “normal” when they should play on easy. But even if they know what skill level they are, and even if they are honest about it, the whole difficulty scale is still very subjective. The entire scale is likely calibrated by people who – because they made the game – are masters at it. So even if I know I’m a mediocre player, should I pick “Easy” or “Normal”? And there is another problem: What is the difference between “normal” and “hard” anyway? Is hard, “You will be frustrated and die sometimes”, or is hard, “you have no chance at success”?

Kill 10 rats. Kill 10 dire rats. Kill 10 Rat Lords. Kill 10 Rat Overlords. Kill 10 Rat Demigods. Kill 10…

The upshot: Everyone has different skill levels, and they also have different preferences for how much challenge they expect to face in order to have fun. Designers, being experts at a particular genre, have a whole different scale for what makes a player “average”, and they also often have a different idea for just how much frustration the player can endure before they are no longer enjoying the game.

This is a miserable problem, but some games can sidestep all of this completely. Of course I’m talking about RPG’s.

Let me stipulate: RPG ostensibly stands for “Role Playing Game”, as in: you assume the role of a particular character with their own personality and try to see the world through their eyes. But, the term has been morphed quite a bit, and is now used to denote games where your character grows in power over time. In the “RPG” game Dungeon Siege, there was no roleplaying whatsoever, aside from:

  1. “I’m an Elf, and I’m going blast this monster with a fireball!”


  2. “I’m a human, and I’m going to stab this monster with my sword!”

That’s pretty much the whole game, and you’ll notice there is very little playing of roles going on there. Nevertheless, from here on when I refer to RPG I’m talking about this sort of game where you have stats, powers, or abilities that grow over time as you defeat enemies and accomplish goals.

RPG’s can avoid this issue altogether by simply giving the player lots of freedom to move around and play the game at their own pace. Getting bored slaughtering weak foes? Then hurry ahead in the game to where the challenge and the rewards are greater. Having trouble or feeling frustrated? Then just take things slower, and grow in power before moving forward.

Man, the new expansion is really Goblin up hard drive space.

With a system like this in place there is no need at all for any sort of difficulty system. Everyone will, without prompting, find their own skill and comfort level that offers the right mix of challenge, risk, and payoff. Let’s take our two most extreme examples:

The Newbie

Grandma decides to play one of these new-fangled computer games the kids are going on about. So, she starts a new game of “Middle Earth Rip-Off IX: Ultimate Hack’nSlash” and creates a new character. The game suggests that “fighter” is the simplest character to play, so she picks that. Then she has to choose her race. She picks “elf” because he looks so friendly and likeable. She has no idea that the Elf’s low strength makes him a poor fighter. Then she has to allocate her skill points. The Elf looks like a very smart and affable guy, so she dumps ALL of her points into intelligence, charisma, and the remaining points into wisdom. What a fine fellow! He is so comely and smart, he’s sure to be a great hero! She has a few more options that control her character’s backstory and family origin, but those look confusing and don’t seem to matter much anyway, so she ignores them.

As she plays the game, she picks armor and weapons that look nice. Battleaxes are ugly. Metal armor looks bulky and uncomfortable. Her elven avatar looks much better in leather armor with a short sword.

By contrast:

The Veteran

Francis fires up the same game and he also creates a fighter. He knows instinctivly that a Half-Orc is the best race for this sort of character. He dumps all of his attribute points into Strength and Constitution, and then pulls a few more points out of the other stats and puts them into Dexterity. He’s read the strategy guide, and he knows that if he selects “Tribal” background and then “Son of the Chieftan” for his backstory, he will get several good bonuses to his combat abilities. He looks at the other options, does some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and comes up with the optimal choices that will maximize his power in the game. He now has the strongest possible fighter character that anyone could hope to create.

Before he starts the game, he sets up a few hotkeys and makes sure he’s familiar with the various armor types and which ones compliment the weapon type he’s chosen. He cares nothing for asthetics; only performance matters.

So now both characters are embarking on their quest, only Francis has a highly optimized fighter that is going to go through the foes in this game like some sort of Orcish lawnmower, and Grandma has a fine, handsome young elf who would lose a fistfight against Stephen Hawking. And yet, both of them can have a good time if the designers didn’t do anything stupid. The game doesn’t need to self-balance by making enemies weaker when the player is defeated. It doesn’t need to force the player to choose how good they think they are before they start playing. It doesn’t need to increase the strength of the monsters when it sees the player is highly optimized. It just needs to provide a series of areas with steadily increasing challenge level, and allow the player to spend as much time in any given area as they like.

Sure, Francis will burn through the whole game in eight hours, and it will take Grandma three times as long, but each one will find the game offered the right level of challenge. Grandma will hang around each area and farm experience to the point where she is nearly eligible for government experience-farming subsidies. Her character will level up many times before she moves on. On the other hand, Francis will pass quickly through areas because he knows he can earn money, items, and XP faster in the next area. Sooner or later he will hit a point where the game naturally starts to push back, due to his low level. He will get to a point where his skill at optimization and mastery of the hotkeys cannot overcome his relative strength deficit, and he’ll have to slow down until he has a few more levels under his belt.

Everybody plays. Everybody wins. (Everybody except for the monsters, of course.) The system is elegant, intuitive, and automatic.

I don’t know what any of these numbers mean but I’m pretty sure I’m winning.

Final Fantasy and Diablo are two games that have this going on. The games are very different in nature, but what they have in common is this self-balancing dynamic. Both games are also mega, mega hits. I don’t think these facts are unrelated.

What surprises me is the number of outfits that make these sorts of games that have no clue how the games really work or what makes them fun. Way too many designers regard this wonderful self-balancing dynamic as some sort of shortcoming that must be “fixed”.

A few examples:

  1. Freelancer had “pilot levels”. The higher level pilot you are, the better the ship you could fly. This is stupid and arbitrary (like, what? The dealership won’t SELL you the ship? Are we supposed to pretend this isn’t nonsense?) but the real problem arises when the game won’t let you level up until you complete certain tasks. Tasks which are hard. Tasks which would be easier if you were allowed to buy a better ship. Ships that you can’t buy until you level up. In short, they had a self-balancing system and then deliberately thwarted it.
  2. Dungeon Siege would have this dynamic, but there is a fixed supply of enemies. Once you pass through an area and kill them all, they are gone forever and there is no way to fight more. So, the game becomes very one-dimensional.
  3. Morrowind spawned enemies suited to your “level”, which sort of defeats the purpose of leveling up. The more powerful you become, the stronger every monster in the world is. It was still a fantastic game, but it was so in spite of this.

Self-balancing gameplay is highly desirable, and yet a majority of RPG’s thwart it. That’s just stupid.

Now I am wondering: Will Hellgate: London have it? Many of the developers from Diablo are making this game, but they are doing so from within a different company. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.


From The Archives:

53 thoughts on “Self-Balancing Gameplay

  1. mom says:

    You do such a remarkable and thorough job of descibing this issue. Very readable and entertaining. I LOVED your desciption of Grandma’s approach to playing a game. Very funny. and I’m sure true. Actually the experienced player was funny too. If I can offer a small criticism of your demean your clever and insightful analysis of an issue when you lable the object of your critique “stupid.” You used the word twice in the conclusion. It has an air of “suddenly everyone was run over by a truck” to it too, as though you had said all that was important to you and you didn’t care to labor over writing a graceful ending to your elegant ( I’m not being sarcastic) prose.
    Much Love

  2. not mom says:

    another good example of a game that removes the “self-balancing” a game of which i revere as a master of its genre but despise is grand turismo. they place a very large portion of races, tracks etc. on the other side of these insanely difficult lisence tests. they will ask you to drive a quarter mile in 5 seconds with your moms beat ass factory stock geo metro. this removes the whole fun aspect from this game and in turn detured me from continued play. but i cant help but think that i hate these tests due to my lack of interest in racing games in general (unless i’m shooting bannanas and turtle shells). don’t forget though that sometimes developeres design a game to target a specific group that is crying out for their favorite style of game. these people want a hardcore in your face challenging…insert game genre. they don’t care if the game is to hard for those grandma poser wannabes’ “this game ” is for those that need to scratch a particular itch and a game for everyone just won’t cut it. I myself consider my platforming game skills to be above PAR and don’t care if the game calls YOU stupid and makes you do stuff eleventy billion times until you get it just right. I don’t suck and got it the first time.

  3. You know, I’ve been playing pen & paper RPGs for over twenty years, and I’d rather play like Grandma than like your grizzled veteran. If I have to look at something for hours and hours, why does it have to be ugly?

  4. Teague says:

    Wizardry 8 did a pretty good job of balancing, by having a mix of pre-set and randomly generated monsters in each area. The pre-set ones were, well, pre-set, but the random ones were geared toward the party’s current level/power. This gave each area a certain general difficulty level, but kept it interesting for parties that were of higher level. This system enables the plot to return to some areas more than once without the player being bored by the monsters there. It’s a bit dated visually (1999-2000, I think), but I think it’s still the best party-based RPG ever. I only put it ahead of Baldur’s Gate I & II because of the limits/restrictions of the D&D system.

    1. Galad says:

      well, this comment might be a reply to an 8 year old comment, but I wanted to note that Wizardry 8, while being the ‘swan song’ of its series, is also, afaik, something of a spiritual ancestor to many modern JRPGs.

      And even in present day, it’s worth playing to an RPG fan who’s missed it. Its graphics are in that ‘sweet spot’, so to speak, where you can see they’ve aged and they’ve maybe not aged too well, but are not so blocky as to prevent one from enjoying the fine RPG they represent.

    2. WJS says:

      I’d just like to share a little “hack” I found way back in Wiz8, for those who find that the levelled respawning enemies a bit too tough: They spawn at your average party level, so if you, say, created a fake “dummy” character, kill him off at level 1, and don’t rez him, the resultant enemies are 5/6 of your level, which may be more managable. This isn’t usually needed, but if you’re trying a game with less than the expected 6 characters, it can really help if it turns out a bit too challenging for your two dudes facing encounters balanced for a party three times their size.

  5. Dan says:

    Umm. Why do you go on about self balancing as if everyone shares your opinion of it. Obviously they don’t, that’s why *some*(by no means a majority) roleplaying games try to eliminate it.

    The self-balancing mechanism you describe is the reason I tend to avoid Final Fantasy and friends like the plague. I am firmly in the veteran camp, having played computer games for over 20 years and always trying to beat the hardest difficulty level and unlock all the secrets. Problem is, finding secret areas takes time, which means more random encounters, which means more xp for my characters. Worse still, secret areas have the best loot which makes your characters even more powerful. After a while the main game holds no challenge whatsoever. Sure there are optional super-bosses (or there were in FF7, at least) which provide a challenge but they hardly make up for it.

    What I want from a computer game is a measured challenge. “This area should be so hard” etc. It is unsatisfying to overcome a challenge simply because your characters stats are higher. To overcome hard bits you should have to raise your game, not your stats.

    It’s an interesting article and you make some good points, also you have let me know that I might like Dungeon Siege (I avoided it because I thought it might have the unlimited xp problem), but it would be better if you didn’t make the assumption that “self-balancing” is universally desirable. It is most certainly not.

    1. WJS says:

      Except that it is, and this is kinda a stupid post. With an artificially “balanced” game, if you challenge-hunters find it too easy, you’re SOL. You can’t just go to an area ten levels “too high” for you, because the game will go easy on you if you do. In a game without that kind of meddling, you can just push the level boundaries, and won’t run into a problem until the very endgame. “Too easy for 10% of the game” >> “Too easy for 100% of the game”.

  6. Jeff says:

    I think the biggest problem is that, in most games, “experience farming” can get *boring*. Granny’s just going to stop playing once she gets bored of walking back and forth waiting for random encounters.

    I think a better solution is what we generally think of when we talk about “game balance,” which is an attempt to make all options playable. A smart, charismatic elven fighter may not do as well going toe-to-toe with a monster as Francis’ min-maxed melee machine, but could have the following compensatory advantages:

    * An elf with shortsword and leather armor, even of average dexterity, should be much faster than a half-orc with metal armor and a battleaxe.

    * He should have a much easier time with the “social” aspects of the game – recruiting party members, talking to NPCs, bartering, etc. He may even be able to talk NPCs into just giving him things that Francis’ character would have to go on a monster-laden quest to obtain.

    * He may have much better defense against magical attacks, or be able to take a few levels of magic-user himself.

    * He may be better able to anticipate his opponent’s moves, a la the “foresight” stat in Knights of Legend, or have feats that are unavailable to Francis’ character.

    In my ideal game, Francis’ character wouldn’t be better than Grandma’s, except perhaps by Francis’ “old-school” standards. Their gameplay would be very different, though – Francis would only stay in “civilized” areas long enough to rest and buy supplies before venturing back to the “dungeon”, while Grandma would be spending most of her time in towns, following the plots there.

  7. Miako says:

    You’re ignoring the UltraExpert.

    Yeah, the one that plays Babushka’s character for kicks, because it is -harder- that way.

    Ever played ADOM with a halfling merchant and -won-?

  8. Casper says:

    “žGrandma has a fine, handsome young elf who would lose a fistfight against Stephen Hawking”
    In this corner we have the charismatic Elf from Greenwood, and in this corner we have the Stephen Hawking, genius of science!
    Annnnnd the battle is on!
    Stephen moves inn with a straight attack, the Elf tries to evade!
    Elf is down! What a fight!
    Stephen is rolling over the Elf's face with a wheelchair! Ouch, that's ganna leave a mark!
    Elf cant get up, seems the wheelchair is to heavy for him.
    Ladies and gentlemen, Stephen Hawking wins the mach!

    Sorry, just couldn't resist!
    Currently I am playing Morrowind. I already thought than it may work that way-by balancing your opponents. But leveling up is still worthwhile- you can fight uber cool zombies and other stuff (duno, haven't got that far jet), not “diseased rat”.

  9. nevered says:

    This is exactly the reason I hate RPG’s, and am firmly in the Action/Adventure corner.

    the main difference, in my definition, is the existance of experience points.

    Zelda games, not having experience points, are Action/Adventure games.

    Final Fantasy, where the characters gain levels, are RPG’s.

    Now: the crucial difference: and the one that makes me hate RPG’s: is that RPG’s depend solely on the character’s ability to fight, where Action/Adventure games rely on the player’s ability to fight.

    A great zelda player could take link as he first starts, use a code to take him to a “high-level” area, and defeat an iron knuckle (one of the most difficult foes in the game) sure, there are heart pieces which give the character more health, and you can go on quests for better swords and armor, but when it comes right down to it: a good player with bad equipment is always better than a bad player with good equipment. In short: i can pick up a zelda game, start a new character, and be just as good at killing squishies as I was the last time I turned the game off, during the credits after the last boss fight.

    On the other side of the coin, you have RPG’s, where it is the skill of the character, not the player, which determines the outcome. take a level one character in FF, put him against the hardest minion in the game, and even the greatest FF player in existence will die. Players are forced to constantly grind squishies, just to get the experience to gain a level. Where an Action/Adventure player has met, defeated, and mastered the necessary items/tactics necessary to defeat any given monster, the skill of an RPG player is all for naught if the character he is playing has not yet filled the experience bar.

    if you want an auto-balancing game, eliminate experience points altogether. Francis will quickly master the necessary tactics to defeat demons, where grandma will still face a challenge whenever she meets a rat.

    it is the player, not the character, who gains experience, and the player’s experience determines exactly where they can and can’t go.

    eventually, grandma will come to learn the finer points of item usage and timing her strikes that allow her to progress further, but this will be when grandma herself, and not just that kindly elven lad she controls, discovers how to do it.

    1. Sojiro says:

      “take a level one character in FF, put him against the hardest minion in the game, and even the greatest FF player in existence will die.”
      This is WRONG. Multiple FF games can be finished by staying at level 1 (or whatever level you have when you start).
      Actually in some cases (FFX and VIII) it is FAR from being the most difficult challenge available.

      Player skill is most definitely useful.

      And saying “nah, the game shouldn’t ever become easy, you have to acquire the skill yourself” is awfully shortsighted. Some people are just NOT good at this, and they have better things to do than spending months training in order to finish the damn thing. At some point it is more a chore than a pleasure, which is a big no-no for a game.

      1. WJS says:

        In VIII, it is a great deal easier to beat tough enemies at level 8 than it is at level 80! Talk about a broken mechanic! (For those unfamiliar with the game, it scales monsters to match your party, but doesn’t scale the equipment you find. A level 8 PC in level 80 gear vs. a level 8 monster is obviously a much more favourable fight than a level 80 player in level 80 gear vs. a level 80 monster)
        I don’t know what you mean about FFX, though; IIRC the monsters in that were all fixed strength, so you could totally spend an arbitrarily high or low amount of time grinding before pushing the harder areas.

        1. KarmaTheAlligator says:

          They mean the No Sphere Grid Challenge is the easiest to finish out of all the challenges that exist for FFX.

    2. Deadly Laigrek says:

      You forget that some people will never get really good at a particular game and so will never be able to beat the final boss. I am well above average for most video game categories (except for racing and SOME styles of RPGs), but some of my friends are simply not good at video games and never will be – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, yadda yadda yadda. So the self-balancing mechanic works better for them because it allows them to compensate for their reduced player skills versus my advanced player skills.
      Maybe we could compromise and have a setting wherein one could shut off this mechanic, thus allowing all enemies to level up as you do?

    3. RanDomino says:

      You will be interested in The Elder Scrolls FIVE (!): Skyrim, which will take the series boldly in the direction of which you speak.

  10. Lacynth says:

    See, that’s the friggin’ point you guys are missing. Grandma is gonna get bored real fast with the games that she needs some amount of skill in just to be able to go farther in. Yeah, great, you can take Link at the beginning, and defeat an Iron Knuckle. While you were concentrating on that skill, I was, you know, dating. Most people on this planet have lives, and things to do other than gaming. And leaving short-sighted comments on gaming. Shamus already mentioned the casual gamer multiple times, and yes, most people are casual gamers. They NEED game balance, and stuff to help them as much as possible, because they have developed skills other than “pwning” the “n00bs” that just stepped into their favorite game. Big deal, so you’re great at gaming. I like to actually spend time enjoying my games, and what little plot they put out recently. Because for a lot of people out there, it’s just that, entertainment. When game companies realize that they can get people hooked with a good story, and solid gameplay, that’s when they have a mega-hit. Which is why FF7 sold so many copies, and is still selling in the used bin. And probably why you don’t like it.

  11. Primogenitor says:

    I totally agree with this. Give players a variety of challenges, and let them choose the ones they want to do rather than force them to do things they might not be able to do.

    However, the “gridning” inherent in the easiest way of implementing this as random encounters does get boring fast. Random encounters are easy to make, random sub-plots are somewhat harder.
    In particular, if the main plot does not scale to the characters then the griding itself becomes the “impossible task” symptom you were trying to avoid in the first place, only instead of wasting time reloading your wasting time leveling. For example, FFVII the final boss could be doing ~2500 damage if you get there by level 50, or 9999 if you get there at level 100. Yet the plot is the same, and it presented a similar level of player difficulty, regardless of character level.

    By the way, there is an excellent and exhaustive commentary/rant about game design (mainly MMORPG/RPG) at I didn’t write it, and it’s a bit old now, but it has a lot of nuggets of truth in it.

    Oh, and for the people who don’t like the character-based part of an RPG, then don’t play an RPG. That is like saying “I hate lemons” and then complaining after you’ve deliberately eaten one.

  12. Thijs says:

    Morrowind didn’t have that kind f leveling system. It was it’s successor, Oblivion

  13. Rollie says:

    You’re somewhat right. Morrowind scaled most of the enemies on the overworld to the players level, while dungeons and NPCs were set in stone.

  14. Thijs says:

    serious? I never noticed that in Morrowind, but it annoyed me very much in Oblivion.

    still, Morrowind can do nothing wrong for me, as it took away 6 months of my life!

  15. Arkmagius says:

    Morrowind creatures only showed up when you were a certain level, ie Golden Saints and Winged Twilights are very common enemies when you get to level 30 and above; conversely, in Oblivion when you get to high levels common bandits will be wearing 100000gp daedric armors. It was a bad choice for the ‘story’-driven Elder Scrolls universe either way, but how else to keep it from being boring? Exploration was the main draw of the games, making parts you shouldn’t be in yet impossible or parts you’ve already beaten simple would alienate the fanbase and result in a boring, dreary world.

  16. Chaos Fact says:

    I disagree. One of my favorite parts of exploring RPGs is that cracking instant where finally, after days, I can go see what the heck is in the Lava Cave of Pain and Suffering. If I could just march in there the very first time, my reward wouldn’t be nearly as special as if I marched in, got whipped and ran out, trained for however long, came back much later in the game, and picked up that same reward.

    Imagine, just as an analogy, if other genres worked like this. Take the Zelda series, especially the more recent ones. Would that eight millionth Heart Piece be as special if you hadn’t had to visit eleven Temples and get eleven new tools to get to it? Imagine if Hookshot targets didn’t appear until you had a Hookshot, and instead there was just a bridge leading to each destination. Would the new item be half as cool?

    Now, I know those games are more “Metroid-style” where you unlock new locations by getting new abilities and that is the crux of the game. RPGs shouldn’t try to follow that same template, sure, but I think the idea of “The player appreciates what he’s earned more than what he’s just given” applies to all games.

  17. Grue says:

    Another great article! I may even think your idea is better than you think it is.

    You write that grandma would take three times as long as Francis to finish the game. But couldn’t the difference in times be O(1) instead of O(n)? If done right, after the very beginning of the game perhaps Grandma and Francis would take equally long to kill each mob that they kill, and find it equally hard. (Grandma would just be doing it with a much higher level character, and Francis would have whizzed by the beginning of the game.)

    I’m not sure, I just think there might be some way of giving out experience and setting level requirements so that Grandma would always be a constant 7 hours behind Francis.

    If it really takes Grandma 3 times as long, it would probably be hard/impossible to balance the plot/grind ratio for both players simultaneously.

  18. Korn says:

    Grue, if it took equally as long for granny to level up as it took the other guy, than what’s the point of understanding how the gameplay works? Shouldn’t the other guy be rewarded for knowing more about how things work? If i put on leather armor when I should be wearing chain or plate, wouldn’t it be more immersive if i actually suffered the consequence? Choices have results, and not all choices are equal. I think that’s why he suggested that granny would level up slower – she’s less experienced/hardcore. I think that many of the recent games are not self-balancing in the way this article recommends, they’re instead equalizing rewards so that no matter what choice you make, you’re just as good as someone else – just like what you’re wanting to see.

    1. WJS says:

      Um, you put on leather as a class where you should be wearing plate and you will suffer the consequences, namely getting your ass handed to you. You shouldn’t have your XP arbitrarily cut as well.

  19. Korn says:

    And that is where I part ways with the mainstream market.. it’s equalizing the gameplay and that drives me away from it. Instead of focusing on the choices we make and how those affect our character, they’re normalizing those choices and taking what was a very methodical thought process and making it into a more action driven zelda-like experience where even a noob can compete with the best of players – they don’t have to learn all ins and outs and rules and bakcground and.. it’s point and go gameplay. And hte writer of the above article also needs to understand that there’re many opinions out there. No matter how good diablo was, I can come up with a very long list of how much I hated it – even though I played it and enjoyed it. That doesn’t mean that I admire it or think it’s the king of virtual worlds. I can have fun throwing my sock at the wall, does that mean sock throwing games are better than complicated thought intensive rpgs? Fun has its place but so does strategy, thought, etc. Thats why we have genres.

  20. Agathe says:

    “Most people, even newbies, don't want to select “easy”.” This is most certainly true and reminded me of a similar issue the condom manufactures had. After initially naming their sizes “˜small', “˜medium' and “˜large', hardly any man dared to buy the first. Which of course let to a lot of problems for both the users and manufacturers and resulted into renaming the sizes “˜L', “˜XL' and “˜XXL'.

    A similar thing could be done for the difficulty levels, renaming them i.e. “˜hard', “˜harder' and “˜impossible' (while still giving the player an “˜easy', “˜normal' and “˜hard' game without rubbing it in the player's face). Even though the newbie selects “˜hard', he or she knows it is the easiest mode, but will not feel the shame that usually comes with having to select the easiest mode. Simply because the game says it's hard. At the same time, the only players that are really interested into beating the most difficult mode are hardcore gamers. They will of course see right through this and almost always choose the “˜impossible' mode, without being scared of the game actually being impossible to beat.

    This is being done in some games. It doesn't mean the “˜choose a difficulty level' system is perfect (it still has obvious issues like stated in the article above), but there are ways to soften the blow.

    1. Sojiro says:

      Some games like the recent Mass Effect do something else along those lines. Instead of renaming the Easy level “Normal” or “Hard”, it’s given names that have less negative connotation, like “Casual”.
      A casual gamer usually doesn’t see being a casual gamer as a shameful flaw.

      Also, it notes that the “normal” difficulty is meant for experienced players who know what they are doing, so it’s clear that it’s not expected to be manageable for newbies, even if they don’t otherwise suck.

  21. Daimbert says:

    I’m one of the exceptions to the “Don’t select ‘Easy'” rule; even when I’m good at the game, I choose easy because it makes it easier for me to just sit back and enjoy the story. Which is a big problem with the idea here, since a player like me ISN’T going to grind because it stops them from experiencing the plot. Which means that unless I deliberately try to grind — as I did in Persona 3 and Persona 4 — I’ll be horribly underlevelled.

    Persona 4 wasn’t bad on that, actually, because on Easy mode if you just basically explored every floor completely, you’d hit the right levels. Persona 3, on the other hand, just reminded you that you might want to grind at various times during the game (which I hated on later replays).

    Silent Hill 2 did the naming well, by asking you how hard you wanted the puzzles and combat to be. While people might equate “Easy” with “Suck”, saying that you don’t really want difficult combat or riddles is a lot easier to take.

  22. Indiana says:

    I definitely am an advocate worlds that are filled with static enemies. I want bugbears on bugbear hill, I don’t want them to be replaced with rats because I’m lvl 1. Its easier to become immersed in a world that has deadly challenging creatures. To touch on good story and gameplay, I played everything Baldur’s Gate in 2006…for the first time ever. I literally binged on those games. A two dimensional, AD&D, speak bubble dinosaur. The experience showed me that you don’t need cutting edge graphics for a good time.

    I played them soloing as a wizard because you would get all the xp from an encounter as opposed to splitting it amongst a party. Now the challenge and fun comes from surviving early on in order to beat the games’ difficulty curve. Then its down hill from there. I would hate to have the game scale to me after putting in the work to become a powerful wizard. There’s nothing wrong with a little grinding to get ahead of the curve, so long as a designer anticipates it and set the challenges accordingly. I enjoy being promptly defeated every once in a while, It’s healthy.

    Gears of War did a great job renaming difficulties: Casual / Hardcore / Impossible.

  23. acabaca says:

    Right on about the inherent self-balancing of RPGs! One of my most exciting game experiences was storming the Gharik’s Forge in Might & Magic 6 (a level 30-40 area) with a level 14-15 party. It was torturous and took a billion saves, abusing the AI and so on, but also so very thrilling and rewarding.

    It boggles my mind how many RPGs deliberately break this wonderful mechanic… Oblivion, Wizardry series, Final Fantasy 8 are all examples of games that take away the whole point of gaining levels by leveling up the rest of the world along with you.

  24. Interesting points. I found that the lowering of enemy difficulty based on player performance in the new Prince of Persia game was extremely frustrating. It does not allow for player improvement and any kind of positive feedback.When I finally have died 7 times and get up to fight again and the boss is piss-easy, what have i really accomplished? And on the other hand, when I defeat the next boss using my newly acquired skills at playing the game, the next boss ramps up and now I’m hopelessly out of my league…

    Too Human though, is a game in which this is taken to the next level, such that progression no longer even matters. The cannon-fodder enemies designed to help build up combos are always (approximately) 3 levels ahead of you. The giant trolls and spiders are ALWAYS 10 levels ahead. The status affect goblins, 5. I become better and better, but even when I go back to past locations, I even find THOSE enemies have been ramped up in difficulty. What’s the point of even playing, then?

  25. acabaca says:

    Teague: “Wizardry 8 did a pretty good job of balancing, by having a mix of pre-set and randomly generated monsters in each area. The pre-set ones were, well, pre-set, but the random ones were geared toward the party's current level/power. This gave each area a certain general difficulty level, but kept it interesting for parties that were of higher level.”

    My brother described Wiz8 as frustrating and demoralizing. Whenever his party got a powerup, enemies would get a greater powerup so he felt like he was being constantly punished for playing the game. Also, the game starts out incredibly difficult even to a fairly seasoned player (to the level that he had to reload and retry the first fight in the game because of a dead character), and in the beginning you have no idea what you are supposed to do or where to go. He never touched the game again after his one trial.

    Bizarrely enough, he does play Wizardry 4, an even harder game with simplistic black-and-white graphics. Apparently once difficulty becomes crazy enough it turns into an attraction of its own.

  26. maheshjr2000 says:

    Wow, I really hate it when people say that oh I cant play on EASY, it would SUCK. I swear to god the sheer NUMBER of times in which I have wished that GT4 was easier so I could unlock all of the content. Although this is leading into a different argument I am one of those people who would love to have the entire game experience without having to be able to run HALO in legendary(choose any generic game and hardest level). Yes it might make me seem like a wimp but the fact is I play the games for enjoyment. I loved Disgaea, it will probably be one of my most favorite games evar(my MOST favorite game period is SMAC). If I have chosen to play a game why should I be deprived of its experiences just because I refuse to memorize the shortcuts or create a build order. I ran the AOM and the W3 campaigns using cheats. I wanted to experience the plotlines without being forced to grind each mission till I hit that perfect balance. I twinked my “character” in disgaea to be as perfect as I could get him but apparently thats not really skill ;). I think its wrong to assume that players with higher skill need some sort of “reward”, being good at the game should be its own reward.

  27. Chris says:

    Not mom: The quarter mile (VW or something? and dodge viper) are relatively easy, restarting only looses 20 seconds, the worst one is the “take this 20 year old racing Mercedes around the Nurburgring, also you cannot touch the grass or the slow pace car at all for 10 minutes. I have accepted that I can’t do the Nurburgring one and just don’t even bother trying to finish that one any more, so the most that I can possibly complete them game is not 99% because I miss this one race, it is more like 75% because 1/4 of the game relies on it. There are also the “fast car on that track with the 6km straight with 3 chicanes in it” which are surprisingly hard at 300kph (400kph?) and a few other really challenging ones. I can understand that they want everyone to do these, you are right, forcing everyone to do them is wrong. They should make say the first license compulsory to do anything, then perhaps to complete the second half of the game make the second license compulsory, but the international and special licenses should definitely be optional, with just cars as incentives to complete them. Or passing all the license test could involve just getting through the test without a time limit, getting cars/medals would obviously require meeting the time limits. Anyway, this is definitely something I hope they address in GT5.

  28. Ghills says:

    Oblivion has the leveling system that makes everything your level. Morrowind does a very limited thing whereby characters<level 5 don’t get eaten as soon as they step off the boat. Other than that, I haven’t found that Morrowind scales bad guys. Critters stay the same in the same places, etc.

    If there’s some kind of leveling going on, I haven’t noticed it at all.

  29. Chamale says:

    Fallout 3 has an interesting case of balancing enemies – areas have a general type of enemy, but what specific enemies you will fight depends on your level. However, if you enter an area at level 2 (causing it to fill with lightly armed Raiders), that area stays at that difficulty. Even if you kill those lightly armed raiders until you’re at level 20, that area will still be full of lightly armed raiders. Then you go to the next area, which sets itself up with raiders carrying missile launchers and flamethrowers. And if you’ve fought nothing but level 2 raiders, your pistol-toting ass will get handed to you.

  30. J0eCool says:

    The dichotomy between character improvement and player improvement is the primary reason my preferred genre is Action-RPG. It combines the best of both worlds, in that there’s a “make the game easier” button (grinding) as well as rewarding a skilled player who does well. Post-SoTN 2D Castlevania games have done this extremely well, many of which featuring a Hard mode after clearing the game on Normal difficulty which is significantly harder.

  31. Vegedus says:

    A detail that strikes me as important is this: “(…) allow the player to spend as much time in any given area as they like.”. I often get a bit frustrated with some games unwillingness to do this. Most JRPGs still have random encounters, and they ensure that there’s always a minimum encounters you have to face. In some games, and to some gamers, this bare minimum is enough to ensure that the game gets too easy. This is further compounded by the common OCD-like psyche of many hardcore gamers: When I go through an area, I want to search it thoroughly. I want to make sure I’ve opened every chest, talked to every NPC and played every mini-game. This means I get lots of money and extra items, but also that I encounter more monsters and gain more levels. I’m a min-maxer by nature, but I don’t do it to make sure I can two-shot the end-boss (not the first time through, at least). I just do it because I crave perfection and games are rarely geared to handle that. In other words, power gamers still want challenge. You often have the option to flee, but that doesn’t help because fleeing from a battle doesn’t really help. You don’t flee from challenging encounters unless you’re close to dying, because those give vital xp. Fleeing from easy battles, however, essentially means the initiation of the battle itself was a total waste of time. If it’s one of those games that takes 20 seconds for getting into the battle, and you’re overpowered group can kill the enemies almost as fast as they can flee the battle, fleeing is just a waste.

    On the other end of the scale, random encounters, fixed encounters at other systems employed by RPGs can also create problems. Getting your ass handed to you by a boss, and then being able to go back a bit and grind is an exceptional quality of RPGs (especially because it’s a nice feeling when the grind pays off). Grinding is never really fun, but I find that it’s seriously aggravated by the downtime between encounters. Some games either have a limited supply of enemies, or you have to jump through odd hoops to get them to respawn (leaving and entering an area, sleeping at the inn etc.). Often worse, random encounters have you running around in circles for minutes at a time, until the random number decides it’s time for an encounter. All the time not fighting anything, time not directly earning xp, is frustrating, boring downtime.

    I think the ideal structure is this:
    – Issue a certain amount of mandatory encounters besides bosses. Encounters with just the normal foes of the game. They can either be tied into the story/progress or it can simply be “Encounter this enemy when reaching this point for the first time”. A rule of thump would be that the player should be unable to avoid meeting one of every non hidden/rare enemy in the game. That way, the player get’s to see all the variety in foes, and maintains a certain minimum level that shouldn’t be too high for anyone.
    – Make all other encounters completely optional. The player should have no trouble only fighting the mandatory battles through the game, except for the difficulty. In games like Chrono Trigger and FFXII you can see the enemies on the map, and the areas are spacious that you can avoid them to some degree. However, you’re still going to end up in encounters you didn’t want if you’re clumsy or unlucky. The solution to that is to:
    – Make the player able to enter encounters at will. The simplest example would be having a button that immediately jettison the player into a battle. Grinding becomes much faster, and you never have to enter a battle if you don’t have to. Simply make the player able to have exact control when he’s going into a fight.

    The biggest problem with this solution is that it has to fit with the setting. It’s not so much a meta-game solution as an in-game one. Players will be conscious about the fact that the character they’re playing is never getting ambushed outside of cut scenes. If the setting is post apocalyptic hell scape, with demons all over, why is those demons only want to kill you when you want them to?

    1. Sojiro says:

      In Atelier Iris you can “slash” a group of enemies before they jump you. For normal opponents it is just going to give you the initiative, but for weak ones you destroy them outright, preventing the fight altogether.
      That’s a pretty good way to avoid farming too much XPs when exploring and waste time on trivial fights.

    2. Paul Spooner says:

      Having a “wait until I’m attacked” button would solve the meta-game problem. Also, getting random encounters while using “fast travel” would also increase the cost of traveling (in hassle).
      Then you put an “auto resolve” option in there as well, and grind becomes relatively painless (wait for battle, auto-resolve, repeat) which means that there should really be a “level up” button, which would be the in-game equivalent of the DBZ “train for a hundred years” montage. This brings back the problem of time passage, which is that most of the time RPGs don’t have anything else going on in the game. The player is the only active character in the entire world.
      Basically, the problem with grind is that it wastes the player’s time, but not the character’s time (because the character isn’t going to die of old age) when it should be the other way around. Make grinding simple for the player (mash the “level up” button) but demoralizing or tedious for the character.

  32. The idea that leveling is for those with no skill or sense of strategy is complete bull. Taking the time to train hard and build up superior force before confronting a dangerous enemy IS strategy. A highly effective strategy.

    Now, I’ll be the first to admit that some design steps need to be taken to make it entertaining and not boring. When it’s designed in a really tedious and boring way, then that’s when I consider it to be “grinding.” I’m in full agreement that it should be fun, not a chore or a second job.

    Still, though, people shouldn’t use the argument that leveling is for “n00bs” with no skill or strategy, or people with no life, etc. That’s a straw man fallacy; it completely misses the point of what building levels is all about. Leveling rewards the player who has the patience to train. “Hard training, easy combat; easy training, hard combat.” It’s that simple.

  33. Nemitri says:

    Very well written, I agree 100%, but I do feel between the casual and hardcore, I care for aesthetics and skill efficiency, If I don’t have a good looking character (At least for me) It doesn’t matter if I have “bad-ass” stats, because they become moot if I’m not enjoying my character, I wonder how many are like these.

  34. spiralofhope says:

    Now that Diablo II is on the horizon, let’s hope that we can all get back into that classic self-balancing gameplay.

    I wonder if MMORPGs count for self-balance. They often have kill-grinding for levels like CRPGs but they also have quests which are quite a contrast.

  35. Eugene says:

    An observation: The example between the grandma and the pro could be further improved if “Tolkien ripoff 2000” wasn’t actually front-loaded with a crapass-ton of loadout, racial, class, and stat options. This is a general beef I have with all computer-based RPGs. It’s fine to have the ability to customize your character; that’s fun and it adds to the Role playing aspect, but giving a player the ability to alter his starting stats and class is a troublesome holdover from D&D that creates a barrier to entry that will turn off grandma long before she ever set foot into the actual game. She’s going to see all those numbers assigned to criteria that either make no sense, are insufficiently explained, or are over-explained to the point of reading like a textbook…and she’s going to go back to reading her Dean Koontz novel, which doesn’t require her to understand the ephemeral nuance of whatever the hell “stamina” is.

    It bothers me every time I see an RPG that asks new players to make a million decisions before ever knowing what the game is going to be like, what they’re about to face, and why. I understand that it’s hard to allow characters to grow naturally when what the designer really wants to do is have them fill a tidy little class…but the lower the barrier to entry is, the more grandmas are likely to admit that killing goblins as an Elf princess is more interesting than the reading suggestions Oprah gave this month. And believe me, you want the grandmas.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      This is an excellent point. A game’s “difficulty” should not scale the hitpoints of the enemies (that gradient is spread across the spatial dimension, seperated into zones or whatever) but the complexity of the mechanics.

      Instead of “easy” you have “simple” mode with a few clearly defined things. You have health and attack. The enemies have health and attack. You want yours to go up the theirs to go down. (This is Pokemon by the way). Whatever the core properties are, that’s what you deal with.

      On the other end of the spectrum is “Mind-screw” mode, where there are about twelve primary statistics, each of which are affected by all the others, and each of which have a few sub-stats which can also be affected. They have vaguely defined uses, relationships, and powers. Also, there are a million buttons. (Welcome to World of Warcraft) This is the game mechanics out of control.

      These two modes could be the same game. In fact, two people could be playing at both difficulty levels simultaneously on different characters. As long as the complex stuff boils down to the simple stuff, it all works out.

  36. Hal says:

    Randomly stumbled upon this post while perusing the site. I’m really amused that you have a WoW screenshot from Cataclysm (released in 2010) on a post from 2006. This means you went back four years later (at least!) to add that picture.

    Of course, I’m coming back 10 years later to add this comment, so I guess it’s not too silly.

    1. WJS says:

      I thought something was up when I read the article. “Wait, Cataclysm wasn’t really that long ago, was it?”

    2. Mr. Wolf says:

      I’m upset that the preview image is KotOR, but the article doesn’t even mention it.

  37. Yujiri says:

    I’m normally a fan of your game design posts, but I have to disagree entirely with this one, and want to try posting a rebuttal.

    You can alleviate this problem by making lots of difficulty levels. This will broaden the range of gamers that can play your game, but it’s a less-than-perfect solution. Most people, even newbies, don’t want to select “easy”. That’s like admitting you suck. Some people just don’t know that they suck. Some people know they suck but don’t want to admit it. So, lots of people will select “normal” when they should play on easy. But even if they know what skill level they are, and even if they are honest about it, the whole difficulty scale is still very subjective. The entire scale is likely calibrated by people who – because they made the game – are masters at it. So even if I know I’m a mediocre player, should I pick “Easy” or “Normal”? And there is another problem: What is the difference between “normal” and “hard” anyway? Is hard, “You will be frustrated and die sometimes”, or is hard, “you have no chance at success”?

    The first problem – that people don’t want to play on something labeled “easy” – can be solved by relabeling the settings (and/or insert one below the “real” easy to make it feel like it’s not the easiest), although I’m skeptical that it’s a real problem in the first place.

    The other problem you mention is solved by allowing the player to change the setting during a playthrough. Yes, games that force you to choose at the start and then stick with it have a serious problem here, but the majority of games I’ve seen with difficulty settings allow changing it, so there are plenty of examples to point to here of successful games that have already implemented settings without the problem you mention. (A recent one is Jedi: Fallen Order, which I recommend regardless, although that game also allows grinding as it’s a Souls-like.) It is also not hard to solve, as it only requires that the designer allow changing the option in the menu. (I’m just saying this to point out that it’s not like it’s some kind of nontrivial design problem to figure out how to allow the player to change the settings.)

    With that out of the way, my main argument is that the system you suggest sounds like an exact description of level grinding to me. We all seem to agree that we don’t like grinding, so why is the practice so popular of designing games so that weaker players must grind to get the appropriate challenge level? All of the “Grandma” players that I know play games primarily for the story or for the family experience, and would quit if they had to stick around fighting old monsters a bunch to get strong enough to fight the boss. I’ve yet to see any meaningful argument that this system has any advantages over allowing the player to change the settings, when the settings aren’t implemented with that pointless design flaw.

  38. TheAlicornSage says:

    I have one problem with self balancing gameplay, okay two possible problems stemming from the same thing.

    I like exploration, but I’ a casual player that gets more benefit from strategizing than from character builds and optimizing. This means that I tend to get bored of facing the same enemies over and over or when they are too easy. I hate, really hate, grinding.

    This means that a self balancing game tends to have one of two for me, either I can’t keep up mechanically by exploring everything once only, or if I explore everything then I mechanically race ahead and find the game too easy.

    Sometimes this gets odd situations in conjunction with other design choices.

    In the old days, I played DDO (still do actually. They have the best monetization scheme, but charge way too much), and I play solo. At the time, I could easily clear a whole quest myself, except the final boss. Once, I had a lvl 5 character playing a level 9 quest (the max level I could play) and cleared all the bad guys rather easily, not through mechanical power but through tactics and strategy. Until I reached the final boss room. The final boss was a lvl 17 with four lvl 15 guards. They only attacked together and not a single thing I had was mechanically powerful enough to matter. They made all their saves to shrug off effects and my maxed out stealth was meaningless. This was troublesome, because even in these really “hard” dungeons I could clear the majority of enemies without issue, so imagine how easy the common enemy was for quests where I could defeat the final boss. Worse, it was quite clear from the design that parties are the expected norm. If I could clear those common enemies by myself that easily, imagine how easy it would be in a group. Practically begs the question of why the common enemies are there at all.

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